English Novelists Read the French Revolution

By Verderame, Michael | Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

English Novelists Read the French Revolution


Verderame, Michael, Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation


English Novelists Read the French Revolution

In Miriam Wallace's Revolutionary Subjects in the English "Jacobin" Novel, 1790-1805 (Bucknell, 2009), a new study of English political fiction following the French Revolution, Wallace argues for the coherence of a circle of "Jacobin" novelists, a category which she expands to include conservative critics of the revolution as well as radicals like William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. Wallace reframes the term "Jacobin" as an emerging "structure of feeling" in the period, in Raymond Williams's famous phrase, rather than as a marker of specific ideological commitments. She argues for recognizing the importance of this group of novels, still largely neglected (with the exception of Caleb Williams [1794]) as central to the history of the modern juridical subject. Wallace's intriguing and well-argued study establishes the importance of the Jacobin novel in anticipating and helping to shape theoretical debates about feminism, subject formation, and the nature of political agency over the last two centuries.

Despite their political and stylistic differences, the Jacobin novelists faced a common problematic: how to negotiate the tension between the universalist claims of the emerging discourse of human rights and a growing awareness of the ways in which political subjects are formed in specific sociohistorical circumstances. Wallace organizes the novels in a series of paired case studies. The most typically "Jacobin" of the group, Thomas Holcroft's Anna St. Ivés (1792) and Robert Bage's Hermsprong (1796), valorize a universalist, liberal, disembodied, and heavily masculinized conception of political subjectivity based upon reason rather than tradition, property, nation, or class. Godwin's Caleb Williams and Eliza Fenwick's Secresy (1795) complicate this model by demonstrating the limits of rationalist claims to truth and the failure of attempts to transcend concrete social and historical constraints upon political agency. Wollstonecraft's Mary (1788) and Maria, or The Wrongs of Woman (1798) and Mary Hays's Emma Courtney (1796) challenge the exclusion of women from the circle of citizenship, but in different ways; Wollstonecraft seeks to denaturalize gender differences and to found the equality of the sexes on a regime of reason, while Hays appeals to a notion of feminized sensibility as a necessary counterweight to abstract reason. Two novels of the latter half of the decade, Hays's The Victim of Prejudice (1799) and Holcroft's Memoirs ofBryan Perdue (1805) both explore the dangers of basing political citizenship on property ownership. Hays proposes a political community based upon women's suffering, feeling, and sympathy rather than upon rights discourse, while Holcroft's novel criticizes a legal system which prioritizes the protection of property over human life. Wallace concludes by showing how three novels often considered reformist or "anti-Jacobin" - Charles Lloyd's Edmund Oliver (1798), Amelia Opie's Adeline Mowbray (1804), and Elizabeth Hamilton's Memoirs of Modern Philosophers (1800) - actually share many of the same concerns as the Jacobin works they are ostensibly critiquing.

Wallace rests her larger argument upon the Godwinian distinction between a literary work's "moral" (the author's explicit intention) and its "tendency" (the actual effect it produces upon a reader). While many of the Jacobin novels explicitly celebrated a liberal model of free political agency, Wallace finds the novels more remarkable in the "moments in which their subjects fail to achieve agency and full citizenship, and in so doing reveal the limitations of those foundations" (12). By focusing on protagonists whose claims to citizenship are constrained and compromised (often women and property-holding men), the Jacobin novelists expose the limits of the period's liberal discourse (with its notion of a universal, rights-bearing subject), and present a more sophisticated theory of political agency as always sociohistorically embedded. …

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